The launch of BioWare’s next big game, Anthem, is just over a month away. With the game’s demo going up for early access subscribers this weekend, everyone’s wondering the same thing: How is it?
At a recent event hosted at EA’s Redwood Shores studio, I got the chance to take Anthem for a test run, playing for several hours through the introduction and early levels of the game, as well as the mid-game content that will be included in the demo later this month.
I love any game that lets players fly and have a lot of control over their environments, so Anthem’s Javelins—jetpack-powered exosuits that serve as the game’s core character classes—caught my eye right away. There are four suits in total: Ranger, an all-around good suit with decent speed, good damage, and armor; Colossus, a massive and slow-moving tank with incredibly powerful attacks and tons of health; Interceptor, an extremely agile, triple-jumping suit that specializes in fast damage and disrupting enemies; and Storm, a Javelin with huge bursts of elemental-themed power and the ability to hover almost indefinitely. While you begin with just one Javelin, the others unlock as you level up.
It took a little while—and a few attempts at playing around with the sensitivity of the mouse I was using (aka lowering it to less than half of the automatic sensitivity) — to get the hang of Javelin flying, but once I’d gotten it down it felt intuitive. Each Javelin is guided in the direction you move your mouse or analog stick, not by directly moving the suit itself as you would with standard WASD keys or a left stick, but by gently angling the camera and letting the suit swing to follow, as if you’re actually controlling a jetpack that has forward momentum. Tiny, smooth corrections are key here; even with the sensitivity turned down, it’s easy for a panicked movement to lead to an overcorrection, wild wobbling, and a crash into a wall. While I enjoyed the flight mechanics, I did find the flight “ceiling” to be much lower than I wanted. You can dive dramatically down into a canyon, but flying up over the tops of most of the hills is out of the question.
Combat in the Javelins reminded me highly of Destiny—or, at least, of the parts of Destiny and Destiny 2 I’ve played (I’ll admit up front that I’m far from an expert here). You have two main guns, two side abilities with different functions (the Ranger starts with a grenade and a homing missile, for example), and a big special attack. These can be swapped out for different guns and abilities on each Javelin, with the game letting you save multiple loadouts depending on how you want to play.
Swooping down through waterfall-filled cliffs and lush jungle canyons while gunning down enemies with friends is an awesome experience, especially with the game’s gorgeous landscapes. However, there are some design decisions that made me raise an eyebrow.
First of all, enemies scale to both you and your teammates simultaneously. This means that there’s some fancy adjustments going on behind the scenes to make enemies equally as threatening to you at level 2 as they are to your friend at level 10. While this is great for playing with others without one person being overwhelmingly strong and the other killed by a single blow, it can raise problems from a character progression standpoint. If enemies always scale with you, do you ever really feel like you’re getting stronger? Obviously, I didn’t have enough time with the endgame to answer that, but it’s a common pitfall for scaling in games of this sort. Given that I saw the same handful of enemies appear repeatedly in both the beginning and middle of the game without too much variation (hello again, big guy with a shield I need to shoot from behind), I worry—though, again, I don’t know—that combat could get very repetitive after a few sessions of facing the same enemies, always tuned to be exactly as strong as they were the last time you fought, no matter how your gear’s improved.
(Also, as a side note, the menu system for starting a mission and grouping up with friends is extremely unintuitive. After playing the game for about six hours, the other reviewers sitting near me and I were kind of starting to get the hang of grouping up. Sort of. We’d still randomly pull up the Origin launcher by accident, or be stuck in the map, or accidentally exit all the way out and have to go through an animation and a loading screen to get back in. After a solid day of playtime I think I could launch a group mission successfully in under a minute, but still not without a bit of fumbling between screens.)
Outside of the main flying and shooting bits of the game—which, hey, that’s the biggest part, so it’s good that they got that down—there were several other design decisions that left me disappointed. I was hoping to get to meet the characters in Fort Tarsis and perhaps get some of that famous BioWare Mass Effect- or Dragon Age-style interaction. Instead, I found that most of the NPCs—in fact, most of Fort Tarsis—is just window dressing along the path between your mission board, your daily quests, your Javelin, and the in-game shop. There are characters walking around, but they have the same impact on the town and on your character as a houseplant. They don’t say anything; they don’t have names; you can’t interact with them at all. Nothing else in the area is interactive, and huge parts of it are gated off, at least in the start and middle of the game.
Of course, you can talk to story NPCs, who stand at specific spots in the fort. While there was a little bit of choice in dialogue here, it wasn’t much. There were only ever two dialogue options to choose from at a time, and both led the conversation in the same direction. It’s a pet peeve of mine when the text you think you’re choosing doesn’t line up with what the character actually says, and that happened in nearly every interaction. Not that any of my dialogue choices seemed to impact anything, anyway, but I’d hoped to have a little more impact on the story and the building of my version of the fort.
Character customization, and other parts of Fort Tarsis, also feel weirdly limited in other ways. You can go all-out, to an impressive degree, in customizing your Javelin, choosing the color and even the texture of every piece of the armor—right down to the dirt smudged on it. However, there’s no such customization for your human character. You can pick from a selection of pre-built faces at the start, and that’s it. However, even that is strange, because—as far as I saw—you almost never see your face anyway. When you’re outside the Fort, the game is in third-person view, and your face is covered by your suit. When you’re inside, the game forces you to first-person, so you can’t see your human face there, either. I only got a glimpse of it once, in one specific short animation of a helmet closing down over my character’s eyes before I left on a mission. Given the huge emphasis on customizing your armor for the outside scenes where you’re fighting, it seemed strangely lacking to have zero character customization for the inside scenes when you’re actually talking to people and, supposedly, building up your character.
So, Anthem’s clearly not aspiring to be a character- or choice-driven game, and that’s fine, if maybe not what fans of BioWare’s recent work had hoped for. The huge (presumably real-money) store page that boots up when the game launches, and other (also presumably real-money, but unfinished at the time I saw them) shops to sell emotes, decals, and other cosmetics were inevitable, and, though I dislike having to pull this word out again, disappointing additions. In my playthrough I also encountered a large number of bugs, including my character’s head disappearing, loadouts not saving, falling through the world, my character changing between male and female randomly, my health bar disappearing, and more. But hey, it’s an early build still; I can’t judge those yet too harshly.
Flying around the world of Anthem and shooting stuff is a lot of fun. It’s a gorgeous world, with a unique concept and the potential for future events to shake up the landscape. I just hope that those parts alone are enough to carry the game.